Divisible cities

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Second place winner in the fiction category.

There is a city to the west built upon a peninsula of ash. Beneath the feet of the inhabitants countless cities have toppled and burned, piles of silt and broken things, condensed overtime into rolling hills and ambitious peaks.

Those who walk on the layer nearest the sun do not think of those pieces of life lying below them; paradoxically, they are intimately aware of the presence of the past. A fossil imprinted on the sidewalk, the eastward wind bringing on its wings the intoxicating smell of charcoal and wood, small fires burn like stars on land – these are our makeshift love letters to the dust dimension.

As you trespass these winding corridors your footprint marks the ceiling of a million footprints trespassing below. A civilization beneath this one, laid waste by fire, bodies that were once beings and beams that were once buildings are melted in this inevitable oven down to a pure iron ore: the molten core of the new world to be born. And beneath that world is yet another.

This one ruled by beasts of a different nation, who speak a barking language and eat of marvelous fruits and fresh sinews. They too convened with the fossil world; in the shape of their ears and eyes and tongues you see the unfinished manuscript of evolution.

And whether by flood or famine, they too burned, and the marrow from their bones was leeched to feed the leeches and their blood was letted to let grow the upright species, with eyes facing forward, westward, waiting for the sunset.

Below the feet of these beasts lies still another story, the same story, in the language of movement. A collection of a thousand million small societies to span the width of the peninsula, isolated and unique, expand and involute like the first beats of that primordial heart in the darkness.

There is no light here and the blind and irrational will to live drives these organisms to build an impossible construction, a neural highway toward the center of a shared consciousness.

The cost of their sentience is the beginning of life and the end of it, the burning of it, the densification, the sedimentation, the record. They will die and be recycled and lay the first brick for the beasts and this they both conceive of and yet can never understand.

And below these flattened highways still there is another layer, built upon a layer below, and onward to eternity. Each molten world will fill the mold of the earth to succeed it. Before the first layer of this perpetual universe there was nothing, not even a star burning in the sky, and yet that nothingness is the creed of all the future civilizations.

You can stand at land’s end and feel the great pressure of that colossal weight of time pushing down slowly, discretely, sweetly, without expectation. And when the last floods recede and the fires erupt once more, these familiar things we’ve collected to define ourselves will disappear. At twilight our bleached bones cast black shadows on the sandy beach: Within each of us the dark materials for a new world that we will never know.